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Title: Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare
Author: Coen, Mildred M.
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcribed from the 1922 University of Illinois edition by David Price,
email ccx074@pglaf.org



                             MILDRED M. COEN

                                * * * * *

                                 FOR THE
                        DEGREE OF BACHELOR OF ARTS

                                * * * * *

                          UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS



                                                        _January_ 23, 1922


                            _Mildred M. Coen_

           ENTITLED _Country Life In The Poetry of John Clare_

                                DEGREE OF

                            _Bachelor of Arts_

                        _Clarence Valentine Boyer_

                                                      Instructor in Charge

APPROVED [Picture: Unreadable signature]

                                           HEAD OF DEPARTMENT OF _English_

Table of Contents

1. Part I        Economic Conditions in the Time of John             1
2. Part II       The Life of John Clare                              7
3. Part III      Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare           14
4. Bibliography                                                     25

Economic Conditions in the Time of Clare

About forty years before the birth of the Poet Clare, (1793) there began
in England a land revolution which by the end of the eighteenth century
pauperized a great part of the rural population.  Up until 1750 fully
half of the land of England was worked in “common”, or in accordance with
what was known as the open field system.  This open field system means
that there were special fields set aside for plow land.  These fields
were divided into very small strips which were alternately cultivated and
left unplowed.  Besides this plow land, there was a definite area of
grazing land, known as the commons.  With the coming of enclosures this
open field system was abolished.  (By the term ‘enclosure’ is meant that
all the strips of any one man scattered throughout the holdings of the
village were given to him in equivalent in a single, consolidated
acreage, which he had to fence, ditch, etc.  Or again, the term applies
to a large district, as very frequently the commons, that was fenced in
for the wealthy landowner’s sheep-pens.)

An enclosure began with a private bill introduced into Parliament—often
by a wealthy landlord.  This bill, showing the advantages of enclosing,
was sent to a committee, whose leader or chairman might have been the
selfsame landlord who had proposed the bill.  After being considered and
passed upon by the house of lords, which was in turn composed of wealthy
landowners only, the bill was put into the hands of a commission to be
executed.  Such a commission, perhaps headed by the nobleman wanting the
enclosure, descended upon the district and distributed the land according
to their wishes.

Enclosures no doubt increased the national wealth immensely in the long
run.  Of course, no modern system of farming could survive in which an
acre was divided into ten or more strips each with a different crop and
different owner.  And modern methods were just then being introduced into
England, and were finding an obstacle in the old system that was almost
identical with the Anglo-Saxon system of a thousand years earlier.  But
the change was too rapid and altered the character of the national life
of England to such a degree that it wrought untold hardships for more
than half a century.  The people of the villages were robbed of the
barest means of making a living.  Just as today the small manufacture has
no chance against the big one in his line, so then the small landowner
could not compete against the wealthy ones, especially since new and
expensive machinery and fertilizers were becoming more and more
essential.  The wealthy landowners improved their estates so that they
might raise the rent and make a profit that could be compared to the
profit made by the fast-rising merchant aristocracy.  The rent on these
improved farms was so high that the small farmer had to give up farming
altogether.  The commons were enclosed and in a majority of the cases
went to the wealthy landowners who raised a better grade of sheep with
heavier wool on the pasturage thus afforded: but the small farmer and in
fact all the rest of the agricultural population did not have a place to
graze a cow.  The small sum of money given them for the loss of their
rights in grazing stock on the commons and gathering wood from the waste,
was soon spent for the bare necessities of living; and when this was
spent, the economic independence of the laboring population was gone.

The enclosures were thus fatal to three classes of the rural population:
the small farmer, who had at most thirty acres; the cotter or cottager,
who had perhaps five; and the laborer who had less than that or none.
The process of enclosing their allottments after the consolidation
mentioned, was so expensive that it could not be borne except by a man
with some capital to start on.  The man who was called upon by the
enclosing committee to promptly ditch and fence his little land, and who
could not do so, was compelled to sell at whatever price he could get.
The small farmer of thirty acres might possibly have borne this expense
but he received no adequate recompense for his rights of common; and such
advantages as he received from the consolidation of his thirty acres
could not make amends for the loss of common rights.  For, without
pasture he could not keep sheep; with no sheep he could not fertilize his
land; without fertilizer the land soon wore out.  The small farmer then
could emigrate to America, or go to an industrial town, or become a day
laborer.  Thus it was that a small, independent farmer in a few years
became a laborer and in another few years was perhaps thrown upon parish

The effect upon the cottager can best be described by saying that before
the enclosures he was a laborer with land; and after the enclosure he was
a laborer without land.  For the inability to fence and ditch his
holdings operated even more sternly in his case than in that of the small
farmer.  A great part of the land, moreover, that was enclosed was turned
to pasture by the large owners, and the laborers formerly employed on it
were discharged.  Where fifteen men farmed, one man herded.  The cottager
and the laborer were thus made dependent on wages alone at a time when
competition for work was beating wages down to a starvation level.  The
squatter was a poor alien on the land.  He settled on the waste, built a
cottage, and got together a few geese, perhaps a cow and a horse; and
began to cultivate the land.  With the coming of the enclosure he lost
his common right; and thus uprooted he could start on a wandering journey
of beggary.

Perhaps we can get an idea of the misery and universal wretchedness of
the rural population if we quote a few words from an eye-witness,
Cobbett, in his PARISH REGISTER:

    “Their dwellings are little better than pig-beds; and the looks would
    indicate that their food is not nearly the equal of that of a nig.
    The wretched hovels are stuck upon little plots of ground by the
    road-side where the space was wider than the road demanded.  . . .
    Yesterday morning was a sharp frost; and this had set the poor
    creatures digging up their little plots of potatoes.  In my whole
    life I never saw such wretchedness, not even among the plantation

The laborer, to keep from starving, often turned to poaching and petty
thievery.  But the noblemen had their parks enclosed against trespassers.
Spring-guns were set up on the estates.  Poaching offenses were made
punishable by death, or at the least by transportation to Australia.  The
poor might seek charity from the parish pauper work-house.  Or they might

Many reforms to better these conditions were proposed, mainly because the
English Aristocracy had just seen in a sister nation what a desperate
proletariat could do if pushed to extremes of misery.  The reform that
was adopted goes under the name of _The Speenhamland System_.  In brief,
it provided that if a laborer did not receive a certain minimum wage
(which was set on a sliding scale to correspond to the price of wheat),
he was to be given from the parish relief to make up the set amount.
Nothing was done to force the employer to pay this minimum wage; and
since he could depend upon the parish having to pay it, he seldom did
give the laborer a living wage.  The result was that those who were not
already paupers speedily became so.  The scheme was the culmination of a
series of strokes that pauperized an already impoverished nation.

The laborer was separated from the land by the enclosures in a greater
degree than can be readily realized.  Before the industrial and agrarian
revolutions, Arthur Young estimated that out of a population of
8,500,000, the agricultural portion was 2,800,000, or one-fourth of the
total number.  In the second decade of the nineteenth century the total
number engaged of farms and dairies was 1,300,000: that is not half the
actual number engaged in the century before; while the proportion had
sunk from one person in four to one in twenty-five.

The main features of this land change were; the open field system was
abolished; the plow and grazing lands were enclosed; small farms were
consolidated into larger ones; new methods and machinery were introduced;
and the laborer was separated from the land.  It was in this change of
rural conditions that the poet John Clare was born and reared—in
Northamptonshire, which was a purely agricultural district and felt the
misery and universal pauperization that went with the agrarian

The Life Of John Clare (1793–1864)

John Clare was horn in the little village of Helpstone in
Northamptonshire, in 1793.  His family, one of the poorest in the
village, was enrolled in the parish pauper list.  When the poet was
seven, his father by the greatest privations sent him to a certain
“Dame-School”; but the money could not be spared to keep him there very
long, and John was hired out to tend the geese and sheep on the commons.
He saved up his few pennies during the next two or three years; and
again, at the age of ten, went to school for a few months.  This was all
the formal education that the poet received; for at twelve he was already
working regularly in the fields.  With hardly strength enough for the
slightest labor, so small and weak-armed that his father made him a
special flail to thresh with, he must have endured sufferings of body and
spirit those years.

When he was thirteen, the reading of Thomson’s “Seasons” led him to
believe that he was a poet himself.  He had already showed a poetic
temperament: as a very young child he had set out one day to walk towards
the horizon, that he might touch it.  As he grew older he was unusually
credulous of supernatural things, fancying all kinds of ghosts and
goblins in the swamps ready to attack him.  Then, when he read the
“Seasons”, he scribbled down on a piece of paper the lines which were
afterwards known as “The Morning Walk.”  He wrote other verses on scraps
of paper which he would stuff into a hole in the wall.  When his mother
would find them, she used them for lighting the fires.  The poet showed
some of his verses to a Mr. Thomas Porter living near Helpstone, and was
advised to learn grammar.  The attempt to do this kept him from writing
any more poems for several years.

During these years, Clare engaged in various forms of day labor to
support himself.  For a time he worked among the gardeners in Burghley
Park, where he acquired the habit of carousing and drinking.  He ran away
for a few months but after wandering about, went back home to work on a
farm.  Later he found work at a lime-kiln; where, though the work was
hard, he found time to write half a dozen poems in the course of a day.
It was at this time, in 1817, that he met Martha Turner, the “Patty” of
some of his poems, whom he married after many hesitations and

Between the meeting with Patty and his marriage, three years later, Clare
became almost a beggar, and put down his name, as his father did, on the
pauper list, claiming relief from the parish.  The money he had saved
when he worked at the line-kiln had been spent on the printing of a
hundred copies of a prospectus, which he called: “Proposals for
Publishing by Subscriptions a Collection of Original Trifles on
Miscellaneous Subjects, Religious and Moral, in Verse, by John Clare of
Helpstone.”  He intended to raise money on this subscription and get
married.  As the title might indicate, only seven subscribers could be
found; and it seemed as if the poems would never be printed.  But by good
luck they fell into the hands of a Stamford bookseller called Drury, who
sent them to London to his relative, Mr. Taylor, a prominent printer.
Taylor saw the value of the poems, and announced them in the first issue
of his new “London Magazine”.  On January 16, 1820, he published the
“Poems Descriptive of Rural Life, and Scenery, by John Clare, a
Northamptonshire Peasant.”  He attached an introduction that was almost
an appeal to charity.

The success of the poems was immediate.  Praise came from the Quarterly
Review that had attacked Keats.  Madame Vestris recited some of the poems
at Covent Gardens; Rossini set one of them to music.  The poet was taken
to London under the guidance of his editor, Mr. Taylor, who took him to
theatres and dinner parties.  There, because of his naive rusticity in
dress, manner, and speech, he became as popular as his rural verses.  At
his first visit, he gained the friendship of two life-long friends, Lord
Radstock and Mrs. Emmerson.  Subscriptions were raised; the money was
invested for him; and Clare found himself with an income of forty-five
pounds a year.

On that amount the poet thought he could live without working.  In the
day he would wander about the commons writing poems; at night he sat in
the inn-parlors receiving his admirers.  In 1821 he brought out another
book, “The Village Minstrel.”  Gilchrist and Taylor had fought the
battles of the first volume; but Gilchrist at this time was busily
engaged in a literary battle between the editors of Pope and Byron and
the Quarterly Review.  This second volume of Clare’s was left neglected.
The next year he made a second trip to London.  The poet stayed there
long enough to get acquainted with the taverns and gay theatres, and to
fall in love with an actress and the young wife of a friend.  He met
Gifford and Murray, and supped with Lamb.

The freedom and gaiety of London had done Clare no good when he came back
to Helpstone; the trip had merely made him discontented and lonely.
However, he wrote verses copiously and tried to make better bargains in
selling them.  He was not successful at this, and the little money he had
soon dwindled away.  Stinting himself in food that his ever increasing
family and old parents might have enough to eat, he became seriously ill.
He went to London again, and receiving medical aid, became better

On this visit, he met all the leading literary men as they gathered for
dinner parties at the home of the editor, Taylor.  Mr. Martin, Clare’s
biographer, gives the poet’s naive reaction to the “Lions” on the times.
Like a child he sat spell-bound listening to their talk, while he felt
keenly a disappointment that they were not as he had imagined them in his
day-dreams.  At such parties he met Hazlitt, Reynolds, Coleridge, Lamb,
Cary, the translator of Dante, and many others notables.

As soon as he was strong enough and had returned to Helpstone, he got a
job digging ditches and draining marshes; but he was too weak to do the
work.  Sickness, poverty, cares, came faster and faster.  His thoughts
naturally came to him in verse; but the circumstances of his life
prevented him from developing to the extent he otherwise might.
Sometimes his poverty and his cares, sometimes drink, sometimes
starvation, prevented him from writing at all.  Out under the open sky he
felt free.  “There was a favorite spot where he delighted to sit, and
where the hallowed vein of poetry flowed freely.  This spot was the
hollow oak on the border of Helpstone heath, called Lea Close Oak.  Few
human beings ever came to this place; inside this oak the poet used to
sit for hours in silent meditations, forgetting everything about him and
unmindful of the waning day and the mantle of darkness falling over the
earth.”  (Martin’s “Life of John Clare.”)

A few years of prosperity relieved the ever-oppressed, poverty-cramped
life of the poet.  During these few years there was scarcely a wish left
unfulfilled, save the one of wanting a strip of earth and to be king of
his own land.  A poor crop and more sickness brought him back into the
dire want of his former years.  The Earl Fitzwilliam gave him a few acres
of land and a small cottage; but the change from the spot where he had
always lived was more than he could bear, and signs of approaching
insanity became more noticeable.  The Earl proposed to send him to an
asylum, since it was decided that the poet had lost his mind.  Mr. Taylor
with some interested friends arranged to send him to a private asylum
managed by a Dr. Allen, at High Bridge.  Homesickness for his wife and
children made him run away, after he had been at High Bridge for four
years, treated with the utmost kindness.  His experiences on this
journey, as described afterwards in a letter, were of the most pathetic
kind.  For ninety hours he had nothing to eat, save a few tobacco crumbs
he had found in his pocket and the green grass by the roadside.  Dying on
the road from hunger, with bruised and bleeding feet, he was picked up on
the roadside by his wife.  Two county physicians came and signed the
certificate that was to shut him up in the Northamptonshire Insane Asylum
for the remaining twenty-two years of his life.

At this place Clare was treated with the utmost respect.  The officials
placed him in a ward with the private patients, paying honor to him as
well as to themselves by recognizing the poet in the pauper.  In a recess
in one of the big windows, he spent the greater part of the years,
writing and thinking.  When he became very weak and infirm, he was
wheeled about in the gardens.  On Friday May 20, 1864 he died.  The
superintendent of the asylum wrote to the Earl Fitzwilliam for the small
sum necessary to carry out the wish of the poet that he be buried in his
native soil.  The Earl refused; but some kind friends raised the sum.
Clare now lies under a broad sycamore tree in the little cemetery of
Helpstone, “with nothing above but the green grass and the eternal vault
of heaven.”

Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare

Although John Clare was a peasant suffering from poverty all his life,
his poetry was not written with a propagandistic but with an artistic
purpose.  The literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
dealing with country life was either artistic or social in purpose.
Ebenezer Elliott, living at the sane time as Clare, wrote poems with a
social purpose—for the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the lowering of the
import duties on raw material.  Although Elliott was actually benefitted
by the Corn Laws, yet he wrote against them most bitterly.  John Clare,
on the other hand, impoverished all his life by the Corn Laws and other
similar measures, wrote nothing dealing with a change in the agricultural
situation.  Both writers are to be praised for their honesty, for their
ability to detach themselves from immediate personal interests, and for
their fidelity to their artistic and social purposes.

The poems of Clare may be divided into three classes: the Love Poems, the
Nature Poems, and the Poems dealing with social life.  In all the poet’s
writings he is dominated by an artistic purpose rather than by a desire
to reform or change conditions.  We should expect this to be so in the
Love Poems, which form the bulk of his work.  Yet, we may learn something
of the country life from these poems, if we take them, written by a
peasant as they are, to be typical of the sentiments felt by all the
rural laborers.  In spite of the material hardships and privations, there
is a simplicity and sweetness in the peasant’s love, an inner life of
tender emotions and warmth of feeling, that is in stark contrast with
external hardships.  Clare, in the love poems, expresses these sentiments
of the peasant.  The poem best illustrating the simple love is one
entitled, “My Love, thou art a Nosegay Sweet.”—

    And when, my Nosegay, thou shalt die,
    And heaven’s flower shall prove thee;
    My hopes shall follow to the sky,
    And everlasting love thee.

The ballad entitled “William and Mary,” {15} in which two rural swains
are talking of their sweethearts, shows an elevated emotion and respect
for the objects of their love, that is deep felt and natural.

    I strive to please her morning, noon, and night.
                   . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    For her in harvest when the nuts are brown,
    I take my crook to pull the branches down.
                   . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    The garland and the wreath for her I bind
    Compos’d of all the fairest flowers I find.

And finally, a few lines showing the simplicity of the peasant’s imagery
and comparisons.—

    ’Tis Spring, my Love, ’tis Spring,
    And the birds begin to sing;
    If it were winter, left alone with you,
    Your bonny form and face,
    Would make a Summer place,
    And be the fairest flower that ever grew.

Besides the sweet and simple love-life of the peasants, the poet
expresses their thoughts about the beauties of nature.  Nature must have
afforded delights that did much to make up for the poverty of the
peasant’s lack of material comfort.  Clare expresses these delights of
the inarticulate peasants when he describes their sentiments, as well as
the beauties of their native scenes.

    O Native endearments!  I would not forsake thee,
    I would not forsake thee for sweetest of scenes.
                   . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Your skies may be gloomy, and misty your mornings,
    Your flat swampy vallies unwholesome may be;
    Still, refuse of nature without her adornings,
    Thou art dear as this heart in my bosom to me.

The poet finds beauty in the common, ordinary, natural objects of the low
fen and the marshy country of his birth.  But in these scenes he saw only
the less gloomy and oppressive aspects.  The commons may have been brown
and barren, but Clare remembers them when they were green and dotted with
wild flowers.  He wrote with fancy, feeling, and reflection about these
simple objects of nature.  In his fancy he lived the life of insects,
which to many are simply annoyances, but which to him are fairies, with
colored hoods and burnished wings, disguised in a sort of splendid
masquerade, rocked to sleep in the smooth velvet of the hedge-rose, or
slumbering like princes in the heath’s purple hood, secure from rain,
from dropping dews, in their beds and painted walls.  A jolly and royal
life this seems, this life of a hand of play-fellows mocking the sunshine
with their glittering wings, or drinking golden wine and metheglin from
the cup of the honey flower.  In a reflective mood, he sees into the
eternal mysteries of nature, beneath the forms and symbols of outward
appearances.  Cowslips of golden blooms will come and go as fresh two
thousand years from now as they are today.  Brooks, bees, birds, from age
to age, these will sing when all the ambitious things of earth have
passed away.

There are two characteristics in the nature poems of Clare: truth in the
painting of the objects, and tenderness in his sentiments toward them.
The poet is both truthful and tender when he paints a bird’s nest, a nest
often seen but never disturbed.  The nest of the pettichaps, close to the
rut-galled wagon-road, so snugly contrived, although without a clump of
grass to keep it warm or a shielding thistle spreading its spear in
protection, is built like an oven. . . .

    Scarcely admitting two fingers in,
    Hard to discern the bird’s snug entrance win:
    ’Tis lined with feathers warm as silken stole,
    Softer than seats of down for painless ease,
    And full of eggs, scarce bigger e’en than peas;
    Here’s one that’s delicate, with spots so small
    As dust, and of a faint and pinky red;
    Well, let them be, and Safety guard them well—
    A green grasshopper’s jump might break the shell.

The other objects of nature that delighted the peasants, and were
poetised by Clare were ants, clover blossoms, and perhaps an early
butterfly.  Again, we find an intimacy with the furry animals of the

    And the little clumbling mouse
    Gnarls the dead leaves for her house.

No other poet has such a collection of insects and animals.

    The little gay moth lovely to view
    A-dancing with lily-white wings in the dew;
    He whisked o’er the water-edge flirting and airy
    And perched on the down-headed grass like a fairy.
    And there came the snail from shell peeping out,
    As cautious and fearful as thieves in the rout.
    The sly jumping frog, too, had ventured to ramp,
    And the glow-worm had just ’gun to light up his lamp.

Thus we can get an idea of the country life from the love poems, which
showed the tender emotional love-life of the laborer, in spite of his
mental poverty and material hardships.  Likewise, in the nature poems,
the poet shows the beauties of nature in the country.  The peasant
delighted in these beauties; he is rich in poetic sentiments and intimate
observations, though he is poor—if we judge poverty to be a lack of food
and clothing.  If the Poet had any resentment of the social and economic
situation, we should expect to find it in the poems dealing with Social

Crabbe’s lines in the “Village”, that describe a boy fainting in the
fields from exhaustion, are memorable.  Such lines might have come aptly
from Clare, who as a laborer, fainted from exhaustion and hunger, and
often went without food.  These lines of Crabbe’s are exactly descriptive
of the miseries of the poor, as experienced by Clare himself.—

    He strives to join his fellows in the field,
    Till long-contending nature droops at last.
    Declining health rejects the poor repast.
    His cheerless spouse the coming anger sees,
    And mutual murmurs urge the slow disease.

However we never find a trace of bitterness in the poems of social life
written by Clare.  Instead, he describes the hay-making time in this

    And meadows, they are mad with noise
    Of laughing maids and shouting boys,
    Making up the withering hay
    With merry hearts as light as play.

All his life the poet longed for a spot of ground of his own; but
enclosures made this an impossibility.  Yet, when Clare wrote about
enclosures, it is not about a personal wrong or injustice that he speaks;
but about the loss of beauty or of something dear to his heart that had
been, but now was gone.

    Whenever I must along the Plain,
    And mark where once they grew,
    Remembrance wakes her busy train,
    And brings past scenes to view.
                   . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    The green’s gone, too—ah, lovely scene!
    No more the kingcup gay
    Shall shine in yellow o’er the green.
    And shed its golden ray;
    No more the herdsman’s early call
    Shall bring the cows to feed;
    No more the milk-maid’s evening brawl
    In “Come Mull” tones succeed.

    Both milk-maid’s shouts and herdsman’s call
    Have vanished from the green;
    The kingcup’s yellow, shade and all,
    Shall never more be seen;
    But the thick-cultur’d tribe that grow
    Will so efface the scene,
    That aftertime will hardly know
    It ever was a green.

In this same connection, in the “Village Minstrel,” we find these lines
lamenting the absence of old scenes and objects of beauty that are gone.—

    There once were springs, when daisies’ silver studs
    Like sheets of snow on every pasture spread;
    There once were summers where the crow-flower buds
    Like golden sunbeams that sheltered Lubin’s head;
    There fallen trees the naked moors bewail,
    And scarce a bush is left to the tell the mournful tale.

Although the poet never wrote to reform agricultural conditions, he is
often realistic.  He even denounces them occasionally, but his prevailing
tone is lamentation—for the passing of the meadow-blooms and
pasture-flowers—for the trimmed hedge-fences and well-kept lawns.

    Enclosures came and every path was stopt.
    Each tyrant fix’d his sign where paths were found
    To hint a trespass who might cross the ground.
                   . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    But who can tell the anguish of his mind,
    When reformation’s formidable foes
    With civil wars ’gainst nature’s peace combined,
    And desolation struck her deadly blows
    As curst improvement ’gan his fields inclose;
    Oh greens, and fields, and trees, farewell, farewell!
    His heart-wrung pains, his unavailing woes
    No words can utter, and no tongue can tell,
    When ploughs destroy’d the green, when groves of willow fell.

Clare sees the hut of clay where the widow lives; he sees the poor house,
and feels the sting that must be the feeling of the pauper when he
accepts charity from the parish.

    Yon parish-hut, where want is shov’d to die,
    He never views them but his tear would start;
    He passed not by the doors without a sigh,
    And felt for every woe of work-house misery.

Neither does the old dame at the parish cottage, as she stands in the
door viewing the children play, and remembering her past youth—neither
does she escape the poet’s eye.

    She turns from echoes of her younger years
    And nips the portion of her snuff with tears.

The poet sees another old woman gathering cress, to make a savory salad
for Luxury’s whim.  For her labor the old woman will get a penny and a
frown.  These objects of nature were just as natural for Clare to write
about, as the brown leaves falling in the autumn instead of the green
leaves coming out in the spring.  The dismal as well as the sunny days,
the joys as well as the sorrows, he shews in his picture of the country

However realistic the poet may be, he is dominated by his artistic
purpose; and for this purpose he chose scenes in the country that amused
or aroused tender emotions in him.  He shunned, perhaps sub-consciously,
the things that brought up feelings of there being injustice in the
world.  His peasants never lack enough food, or some kind of a hut that
they call home.  In the wood-cutter’s cabin the “careful wife displays
her frugal hoard, and both partake in comfort though they are poor.”  His
country laborer, working on some enclosed farm, is a religious man, not
the drunken ignorant peasant who spends his few pennies at some tavern
while his wife and children starve.  This laborer, Clare depicts going
out with his children on a Sunday afternoon.

    And often takes his family abroad
    On short excursions o’er the fields and plain
    Making each object on the road
    An insect, spring of grass, or ear of grain;
    Endeavoring thus most simply to maintain
    That the same power that bids the mite to crawl
    That browns the wheat-land in its summer stain,
    That power which formed the simple flower withal,
    Formed all that lives and grows upon this earthly ball.

Clare writes that his purpose is not to lament the sorrows but to show
the joys; and we may take the dominant motive of the poet from the
following lines:

    But useless naming what distress reveals,
    As every child of want feels all that Lubin feels.

In accordance with this purpose, in the “Village Minstrel”, his longest
poem, he gives us a variegated picture of idyllic country life.

In the Spring the country hums with new life.  On his way to plow the
fields, the peasant feels the Spring-time in the air; the birds sing
merrily as they build their nests; the blue-meadow-daisy peeps farther
out from the grass; while the white lambs grazing on the green commons
look like the last remnants of the winter’s snow.  The milk-maid hums a
love song as she weaves a garland to crown the first returning cow.  The
housewives gossip about the hens and the geese; while on Sunday after
church the men talk about the good and the bad signs of the weather for
the growing grain.

Then the Spring passes into summer, with its gentle, quiet breezes.  A
droning insect disturbed by a shrill sound of the hay-maker’s scythe
ceases for a moment his course; a butterfly rests on a stalk and is
swayed to and fro by the breeze.  The laborer, returning home in the long
summer twilight, remembers the ghost stories told the past winter; and as
the night comes on he hears the swashing sound of the drowned Amy’s
boots.  Mid-summer is ushered in with its feast, and every heart is
jumping with joy.  In brand-new clothes the swain goes to the place of
merriment, eager to meet his sun-tanned lass.  The woodsman and the
thresher, children and kin from the neighboring village, are all present.
At the cotter’s house, Joe tunes his fiddle for the dance.  When the
fiddler is paid, the place is cleared for the merry games that follow the

    Great sport for them was jumping in a sack,
    For beaver hat bedecked in ribbons blue;
    Soon one jumps down though he’s broke his neck
    And tries to rise and wondrous sport they make,
    And monstrous fun it makes to hunt the pig;
    As soapt and larded through the crowd he flies.
                   . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    And badger-baiting here, and fighting cocks—
    And wrestlers join to tug each other down.

At night the men go to the ale-house to drink, smoke, and make merry
until the money’s all gone.

    Resolv’d to keep it merry while it’s here
    As toil comes every day and feasts but once a year.

Autumn, with corn gleanings and merry tales, brings its joy and feasts.
As the old women gather the last of the harvest, they get over-heated.
Stopping to catch their breath, they amuse the children with stories or
Jack the Giant-Killer, Cincerilla, and Thumbs.  When the harvest work is
done, another feast, known as the Harvest-Supper, follows.  Beer,
smoking, and harmless pranks usher out the season of mists and mellow

Autumn breezes turn into sharper and more stinging blasts; the moors and
leas grow bare; the trees are stript of leaves; winter is come.  Though
sombre and desolate, the peasant delights in watching the storm, as great
clouds float faster and faster as the wind drives them before it.  The
woodsman, returning home on a winter night with a load of fire-wood,
looks like a moving snow-bank.  The supper is ready stewing on the hook;
the children, bright-eyed with happiness, prattle about his knees to
welcome him home.  After supper with the hearth swept clean, stories,
songs, and prayer end the day.

           “And thus in wedlock’s joy the laborer drowns his care.”


1.  Cunningham, Wm. “Growth of English Industry and Commerce.”  3 vols.
3d.  1907.

  Vol. 1.  Early and Middle Ages.

  Vol. 2.  Mercantile System.

  Vol. 3.  Laissez Faire.

2.  Gibbens, H de B. “Industrial History of England,” ed. 1895.

3.  Johnson, A. W. “Disappearance of the Small Landowner.” ed. 1901.

4.  Hammond, J. H. and Barbara.  “The English Village” ed. 1914.

5.  Martin, Frederick, “Life of John Clare,” ed. 1865.

6.  Cherry, J. L. “Life and Remains of John Clare.” ed. 1872.

                                * * * * *

7.  Clare, John.  “Village Minstrel.” vol. I & II. ed. 1822.

8.  Symons, Arthur.  “Poems by John Clare.” ed. 1909.

9.  Gale, Norman.  “Poems by John Clare.” ed. 1901.


{15}  Clare’s Poems: Ed. Gale, pp. 36.

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